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Season 5, Episode 32: Finale: Thanks for All the Gravity Assists

Season 5Episode 32Aug 12, 2022

On the Gravity Assist podcast we have interviewed dozens of scientists, engineers, and others dedicated to the mission of NASA space exploration. After five years, the show is coming to a close. Here are some final thoughts and episode highlights from the podcast team.

Jim Green, Manny Cooper, and Elizabeth Landau in the audiovisual production studio at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

On the Gravity Assist podcast we have interviewed dozens of scientists, engineers, and others dedicated to the mission of NASA space exploration. After five years, the show is coming to a close. Here are some final thoughts and episode highlights from the podcast team.

In the space exploration world, we talk about a “gravity assist” as a maneuver past a planet that increases a spacecraft’s speed. The spacecraft steals a tiny bit of energy from the planet, which is much more massive and has a lot more gravity than the spacecraft. Through the magic of physics, the spacecraft speeds up and the planet slows down by an imperceptible amount. In order to get to Pluto, for example, the New Horizons spacecraft flew by Jupiter and got a gravity assist to slingshot outward toward the distant dwarf planet.

Dr. Jim Green, who has held roles at NASA that included Director of Planetary Science and agency Chief Scientist, has taught us that a “gravity assist” is a way to talk about the person, place, thing, or event that propels people in their career paths. After all, no one is born as an astrophysicist or a rocket engineer. Everyone gets boosts of support or inspiration along the way, whether it be from parents, mentors, books, movies, museums, or even the sight of rockets launching in the distance.

Each journey is different. Some people working with NASA missions or projects have overcome tremendous obstacles and followed their passion to get involved in the space program. Other scientists and engineers have known since childhood that they wanted to study space, and pursued a standard educational path in physics or astronomy. Some did not always get good grades in school, and persevered despite the voices that recommended giving up.

We’ve also met amazing space science leaders who did not immediately have a clear idea of what they wanted to do with their lives, and never seriously studied their fields until later in adulthood. They are evidence that there are no time limits on learning a new skill or becoming an expert in something you’ve never tried before.

We hope that this podcast has made you think about the gravity assists in your own life, or even how to be a gravity assist to another person.

–Liz Landau,
Gravity Assist lead producer

Manny Cooper, Jim Green, and Elizabeth Landau in the audiovisual studio at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

Audio Episode Transcript:

Lyndsey McMillon-Brown:My gravity assist was my village.

Heather Graham: The place that immediately pops to mind is the community college that I went to, Santa Monica College in LA.

Darlene Lim: There are my parents who have showed me what hard work is, gave me an appreciation for the natural world.

Jim Green:A gravity assist is when a spacecraft gets a boost of speed as it flies by a an object like Earth or Jupiter. But I like to talk about gravity assists as an inspirational boost. It’s that person, place, thing, or event that propels people into the careers that they have today.

Dave Draper: I was nine years old when Apollo 11 landed, and I’ll never, ever forget watching.

Naomi Rowe-Gurney: It was when I was about five years old, I went to the planetarium in London. And I hadn’t really thought about Earth or space or anything like that before then. And, it just completely opened my mind.

Jim Green:Hi, I’m Jim Green. And after five fantastic years, as I have retired from the role of the NASA Chief Scientist, NASA’s Gravity Assist podcast is coming to a close. I’m so grateful to you, the listeners for coming on this journey with me to tour the solar system and beyond, to investigate the Moon, to search for life beyond Earth. And of course, to interview those that are doing the discoveries that we are, every day.

Jim Green:You know, for this special final episode, we’re going to talk about some of the highlights of gravity assist and some of our NASA memories of how we pulled these off. Now, it’s not only me that made these things happen, and as you know, it takes a team. And that team is Liz Landau and Manny Cooper. So welcome, Liz and Manny.

Liz Landau:Thanks Jim!

Manny Cooper: Thanks Jim, glad to be here.

Jim Green:Well, Liz, tell us a little about your role here at NASA and how you got involved in podcasting?

Liz Landau:Well, Jim, as a public affairs officer here at NASA Headquarters, I do a wide variety of activities, including writing for the NASA website, editing, doing some podcast production. I really got into all of this a long, long time ago, when I took a class at Princeton about science communication, which was a field that I had no idea existed. It was taught by my Mike Lemonick and Ed Turner. And it really put me on this path to communicate to the public my enthusiasm for science and all of the amazing activities that are going on in space exploration.

Liz Landau:In terms of podcasting in particular, I always thought I wanted to be a writer. And it wasn’t until I started listening to “This American Life” and Radiolab in about 2007, or [200]8, that I realized, wow, audio storytelling is really exciting also, but it seemed like it was completely inaccessible to me. I had no idea how a podcast was produced.

Liz Landau:But as it happened, after I had worked at CNN, I came to NASA JPL, and then to Headquarters, and there became an opportunity for me to work on podcasts. Gravity Assist was actually the first one that I started working on regularly. And really, it has been an amazing journey to help develop this show.

Jim Green:Well, how you and I do this, of course, is we talk about who we want to interview. And then you make that happen in terms of lining up the right times and the people. And then you draft our first set of questions. Now, I dearly love that idea. Because, you know, from that point of view, what do you want to know?

Jim Green: I mean, I, I’m up on a lot of the science, not all of it. But you know, I have a hard time making those questions work initially, because I don’t know what maybe the general public knows. So your effort in getting those draft set of questions is really critical, I think, to really create the right tone, and the right opportunity for me to dig into that and go deeper into Gravity Assist. So thanks so much for that role.

Jim Green:And, of course, we can’t make this show happen without our audio engineer, Manny Cooper, you know. I mean, Manny just puts it all together so seamlessly. And so Manny, what did you really like about doing this? And how did you get into the audio engineer business?

Manny Cooper:Well, what I really like about the Gravity Assist podcast is getting to learn things that I wouldn’t necessarily learn in my field. Being exposed to, you know, the science behind, you know, growing food and, and space. What, what does another planet sound like?

Manny Cooper:What are some of the things that astronauts think about when, you know, launching, what you know, they’re thinking about when they’re on the ISS? It’s all interesting things. So, getting to learn stuff like that is, is really, really amazing.

Jim Green, Manny Cooper, and Elizabeth Landau in the audiovisual production studio at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

Manny Cooper:And being at NASA is also pretty phenomenal in itself. So I say, where I got my audio engineering background from, pretty much started in high school at Duke Ellington School of the Arts, focusing on technical theater. Got love for audio doing technical theater, so live shows, concerts, things like that went to school for it down in Florida. So got my college degree, moved back here to DC, where I went to American University for my masters got my masters in audio technology. So it’s in my blood now. (laughs)

Jim Green:And of course, it’s that behind the scenes activity and work that you and Liz do that really, to me make it, so tremendously successful.

Jim Green:Well, you know, and in 2017, the Office of Communication came to me and said, they’d like to do a podcast, and would like to know if I would be the host. And I said, “Yeah, I’d love to be the host!” Not only that, I know what to call it. Let’s call it gravity assist. And, of course, initially, from the Office Communication, they were puzzled by that name, but it really has its roots in an experience that I had the year before. In fact, the name comes from my interaction with people in a town called Mars, Pennsylvania, the mayor of Mars was putting on this big huge parade celebrating the planet Mars as a theme for his parade.

Jim Green:And so he had asked me what the celebration could be about. And I said, let’s make it you know, the Mars New Year. And this is when the year on Mars starts. It’s a perfect timing for it, with the Mars calendar.

Jim Green:And he had this fabulous parade, ] kids were dressed up as Martians. And I said, “Well, can I bring some NASA employees up and we’ll be there and enjoy the celebration too, and talk about what we know about Mars?” Well, he loved that idea. And so I brought about 100 NASA people up. It was great. We had displays and rovers and everything. And I had a little boy in the, in the town, follow me around all day. In fact, I had him hand out stuff and we chit-chatted all kinds of things that he wanted to know.

Jim Green:And we just had a really wonderful time. I even ran rovers over on top of him, you know.


Jim Green:Which was fun to do. And he enjoyed it. Well, about nine months later, I received an email from his father. And I had given the little boy my card. And so it wasn’t hard for his father to get a hold of me. And he said that his son was really blossoming in school. He was getting great grades in math and science and building the Juno spacecraft out of Legos. His son was really getting into space. And so his father said, he wanted to thank me for giving his son a gravity assist.

Jim Green:And I got it immediately. I thought, “wow, who would have thought that, you know, Jim Green, scientist, could really inspire or get people motivated, to be more involved in space to understand how they might fit into the future? I’m not Carl Sagan, you know, I’m not people like Neil DeGrasse Tyson and, and really put it out there on a regular basis. But I did love the name. And I really wanted to know how other scientists get involved in the business we’re in. And that’s really where the name comes from, that one event that happened to me.

Jim Green:Well, imagine, you know, the fantastic stories that came out as we went interviewing people from all over the place, and it’s really hard to choose a favorite episodes or even favorite gravity assists. But what I thought I’d do is, is have a chat with with Liz and Manny about what our favorites are. So without further ado, Liz, what are your favorite episodes in gravity assist?

Liz Landau:Oh my gosh, Jim, it’s so hard to choose. I mean, it’s been such an incredible journey to learn about the solar system and beyond. But especially some of the episodes in the astrobiology season were really compelling to me, you know, people going out to learn about Antarctica, finding out that there is life everywhere you look, even in the most extreme conditions on Earth, as well as people looking at exoplanets for signs of life and how we might do that.

Liz Landau:Ravi Kopparapu at Goddard, I really enjoyed that episode, he talked about the possibility of could we even find pollution on an exoplanet? That’s just so wild. And the idea that scientists are even thinking about that is incredible.

Ravi Kopparapu:I was like, “This can’t be possible. I’m standing in front of history that’s happening right now that we, for the first time in our life, we know, how common are Earth-like planets.”

Ravi Koppaparu:OK, if they’re so common, where can we find this life?

Liz Landau:I also really liked the episode with Kelsey Young, who actually trains astronauts here on Earth for when they go to the Moon, and they have to do geology.

Liz Landau:I also really found it interesting that we have a bunch of people that we’ve interviewed over the years, when we ask them, “What is your gravity assist?” They actually talk about watching Star Trek, or reading science fiction novels. And I’ve given talks where people have asked me, “Liz, do you think it’s a problem that there’s all this sci-fi out there? Does that confuse people?” But actually, I think that it really inspires people and that we really need those amazing television shows, movies and books, to inspire people to want to explore the universe.

Jim Green:Yeah, that’s fantastic. All those I remember really well. Well, Manny, what are some of the episodes that really stand out for you?

Manny Cooper:Okay, so the first one was, What Does Mars Sound Like? with Nina Lanza. The fact that we’re now, you know, integrating microphones in rovers and things like that, is really cool. We get to hear what it sounds like on different planets. We caught the descent, you know, when the rover was landing, and we can, you know, hear what the helicopter sounds like on Mars. So, you know, things like that are really innovative. And as being, again, an audio engineer, it’s really cool to, you know, think that, hey, maybe one day something that I could do with audio engineering, could, you know, be incorporated, you know, in further studies in science with NASA.

Manny Cooper: Let me play you a clip of the Nina Lanza episode.

Jim Green:indeed, can we hear the wind on Mars?

Nina Lanza:We can. And you know, in many ways, it sounds like the wind on Earth, but in other ways it doesn’t. So maybe we can take a listen.

Jim Green:Yeah, let’s do that.

(sound of wind on Mars)

Manny Cooper: The second one, listening to the universe, the Kim Arcand episode, where she had worked with an audio engineer, with an audio engineer to work with infrared images and created composition, musical pieces.

Liz Landau:Yeah, Kim’s data sonification are amazing. Let me play you a clip from one of those.

(sound of galactic center)

Kim Arcand: We’re looking at the inner about 400 light-year region around the supermassive black hole Sagittarius A star at the very core of the Milky Way. And again, we have incredible bits of information from various NASA observatories, we’ve got the X-ray light from Chandra, of course, we also have the infrared light from Spitzer and additional information from the Hubble Space Telescope. And they look very different when you’re looking at these different kinds of light.

Manny Cooper:And then the last one would be Joe DePasquale, the images of NASA, how do we make Webb and Hubble images? That one to me was amazing. listening to him talk about, you know, the numerical number of, you know, for gases, and it got me thinking about, you know, it’s theoretically like painting by numbers, you know, so that’s a, that was also kind of, kind of cool for me, just seeing and hearing about things like that.

Joe DePasquale:There’s sort of like a universal appeal to these images. They touch on a collective need or wants to understand the deeper questions of the universe that we all have, in ways that connect us all together.

Jim Green:Well, I have to tell you, as I mentioned before, episodes that I really like, are those that come with a surprise, okay. When Catherine Walker talked about how she almost fell through a glacier, I mean, my heart stopped.

Catherine Walker:I was like, “Oh, my God, what happened?” and I looked back down, to where I had popped out of, and there was this giant opening. There was about a 20-meter drop down into the ocean from there, and so survived that.

Jim Green:You know, another one that I really liked was Sunny Panjwani. He was in the JSC control room when the Russian module called Science was just connected to the International Space Station, and one of the rockets turned on. And that started the entire space station to spin.

Sunny Panjwani: It was just surreal being there my first day and feeling like I was still stuck in a simulation. It really taught me that our training is there, to push us to our limits again, and, and sometimes, you know, you just you’re sitting there and you can’t believe what’s happening, but you’re calm, and you’re collected, and you’re ready to work the problem.

Jim Green:And then many gravity assists that I really enjoy. And they range from teachers, you know, high school teachers, and that, that really got me started, I resonated with that. There’s no substitute from having a really dedicated teacher.

Jim Green:A couple of the ones I also liked were surprising to me as gravity assists, and one in particular was in first in the first season where David Grinspoon talked about his environment.

David Grinspoon:It turns out one of my dad’s best friends was Carl Sagan when I was little. They were both Harvard professors. You know, this was before he was famous. He was just this cool guy we knew, who would lead these public observing nights at the Harvard Observatory and, you know, let us go run the controls at the planetarium and, you know. So, that was certainly an influence.

Jim Green:And so his end result is, yeah, I’m going to be a planetary scientist isn’t everybody? That, to me, really, really talks about, you know, how our environment is so important for us to shape our young minds into thinking they can fit in, in knowing that they can use their abilities, and build on the knowledge that we have to continue this grand adventure of really uncovering the nature of things. And that’s what science is all about. We need science now more than ever before.

Lori Glaze:I would say that my gravity assist was the day that Mount St. Helens erupted in Washington State.

Faith Vilas:When I was in the second grade, somebody gave me a copy of a book called “The Golden Book of Astronomy.”

David Smith: I would love to give thanks to, back in my public school system in Colorado, some great science teachers.

Knicole Colon: Really it boils down to being a young teenager, and I fell in love with science fiction at the same time that my dad started encouraging me to have an interest in astronomy.

Jim Green:So, Liz and Manny, you’ve heard all these gravity assists. So Liz, let’s start with you. What’s your favorite gravity assists beyond the science fiction realm? Were there others?

Liz Landau:Oh, yes. And some of that really resonated with me as well. I mean, you really get a sense for how things that happen during childhood can really spark somebody to be a lifelong science aficionado, and even become a scientist or engineer themselves. You know, people talk about going to science museums, going to launches, all kinds of things that happened to them, actually, Kelsey Young talks about going on a hike with her father.

Kelsey Young:My dad demanded that we try one hike and I was not into it, and he said, “Fine, you can wait in the car,” and I was so indignant that he was going to leave us in the car that, out of spite, I agreed to do the hike. I was hooked from then on out.

Liz Landau:The experience of going on a hike made her want to go into geology. And I thought that was really amazing. So, you know, for those of you who have children out there, you know, they are so impressionable, and there’s so many things that can excite them and it just takes that one exposure to really set somebody on this path.

Jim Green:Indeed.

Manny Cooper:I would go as far as to say that this entire process has been like my gravity assist, actually editing and listening to all of these scientists. It’s helped me to you know, understand my science a little, you know, further, you know, and given me some ideas on where I actually want to take it. So, again, gravity assist has been my gravity assist.

Liz LandauYeah, I really feel the same way, Manny, like, it’s really one of my favorite things that I’ve ever worked on, certainly at NASA, but in general as well, to be able to be a fly on the wall and listen to Jim Green talk to such an amazing range of people and to learn about the possibilities of what is out there. How does our planet work? How does our universe work? Are we alone? The scientists that are taking these questions outside the realm of fiction and bringing them into our reality — it’s really helped me to not only understand our place in the universe, but really grow as an audio storyteller as well.

Jim Green:Yeah, that’s fantastic. And thanks so much for, you know, participating in this grand adventure that we’ve had together.

Jim Green:So I want to thank you, Liz, and Manny, so very much for making this such a successful endeavor. Thank you very much.

Manny Cooper:Thank you, Jim.

Liz Landau:Jim, you’ve been such an amazing gravity assist to us. And for so many people out there. Thank you for all that you do!


Jim Green:Well, it’s been my pleasure. Well, you know, we do hope that all of our audience out there has been inspired by this show in some way, shape, or form.

Jim Green:Well, you can get Gravity Assist in many venues. But of course, the one here at NASA has been put online by Gary Daines. So Gary, thanks so much for the support of getting these posted.

Jim Green:You can also find out so many other great NASA podcasts by going to And in particular, check out things like the Curious Universe, you know, for which more great stories about the agency are being discussed. I’m Jim Green, and this has been your gravity assist.

Jim Green:Let me read a couple the reviews that I really appreciated. So here’s one, this podcast makes astronomy very accessible to all, very informative and entertaining. That was nice.

Jim Green:Now, another one I really like was from a woman, and she wrote “My 10 year old son and I listen to this podcast, on our half-hour commute to school in the mornings. I love watching him get excited about space, and learning about all that awesome things that NASA is up to. I especially love hearing about what inspired all these great scientists to get where they are today.” Wow, I mean, to me, that’s what Gravity Assist was really all about.

Jim Green:Now, of course, we also had some comments about how to improve what we were doing. One comment was, “please remove the annoying background audio music.”

Liz Landau and Manny Cooper:(laughs)

Jim Green:Otherwise, it’s a great show, right?

Jim Green:So, so there were a few episodes where we perhaps overdid it, but we adjusted that that’s really important input to us. Another one is from a listener who said, “This is an informative podcast, but the host speaks like talking to an audience from Sesame Street.

Manny Cooper:(laughs)

Jim Green:The way he speaks, literally is the way an adult would speak to a child. And that’s very annoying. We should get a new host that understands the audience is not children, but mostly adults.,

Liz Landau:Oh, my gosh, what?

Jim Green:Now, in reality, I’m okay with that. Because I get excited about what we talked about. It’s just what happens to me! There’s great explanations for the science that’s been uncovered. But, sorry about that. Being associated with, you know, Bert, and Ernie and the others, is okay with me.

Manny Cooper:(laughs)


Lead producer: Elizabeth Landau

Audio engineer: Manny Cooper